As explained earlier housing for hens does not need to be large or elabotate as long as it provides the essential requirements of shelter, protection, and sufficient space to exercise their basic instincts to roost and scratch.
There are huge array of poultry houses on the market or you can make your own or adapt an existing shed or outhouse.
The key requirements are –
- Vermin and waterproof
- Adequate ventilation
- Small door called a pop hole to allow the birds access to and from outside.
- Access large enough to allow you to easily and fully clean the entire house ( including into the corners) and catch any birds.
- Nest boxes – where birds can nest and lay eggs
- Sufficient area to allow the birds to shelter, roost and lay.
Some houses come with runs attached. Many are designed to be easily moved and to sit in a grass fee range area; others are linked to a permanent run.
Manufacturers generally quote their units as suitable for a certain number of hens. This is a good starting guide but usually refers to modern commercial layers. If you plan to use it for larger Pure Breeds the number will need to be reduced and obviously increased for small breeds and bantams. If in doubt err on the side of smaller numbers as crowding increases the chances of disease and behaviour problems. As a starting point allow about 1 m 2 for every 5 birds.
Shape is not critical although it is always best to have the enclosed area raised form the ground to prevent this being used as cover by rats and other vermin. Traditional triangular houses are known as Arks. These are effective and simple to construct but can have wasted space and you need to ensure that they can be fully cleaned out and easily accessed to remove hens.
Vermin and Waterproof.
Housing should be solid enough to keep out foxes and other predators. Wood has been traditionally used as it is also a good insulator and durable if properly treated with a suitable timber preservative. It can however harbour parasites and disease unless regularly treated and can be difficult to sanitise. Plastic coated steel and compressed plastic materials are increasingly being used but add to the cost.
The roof should be weatherproof and provide shade as well as weather protection. An overhang prevents driving rain or snow entering the house. Corrugated bituminised sheeting is now frequently used but installation should ensure that rats or other vermin cannot enter the house along the corrugations.
The floor can either be slatted or solid. Slatted floor allow the droppings to fall through to the ground below but are colder in winter and should only be used where foxes cannot get underneath and bite at the feet of the poultry. Some houses, including those sold by Clogher Valley Eggs and Poultry have convenient slide out panels which facilitate cleaning of solid floored houses.
A light airy house is a much more pleasant and healthy environment for poultry. Stuffy and damp houses are ideal breeding grounds for disease and respiratory problems. Feathers provide great insulation in cold weather but only if kept dry so always prevent dampness by good ventilation.
Ventilation can be in the form of a mesh covered window or simple ventilation holes. These should always be high in the house to allow stale air to escape. One of the advantages of corrugated roofing is that it provides this high level ventilation if laid over mesh vermin protection.
A window will provide both air and light – which is important to encourage the hens to lay.
Pop holes allow the hens access to the outside -- either directly or along a simple ramp. The size of the pop hole must obviously be increased for large breeds and be able to be closed at night so the birds are safe and secure. Simple vertical sliding closures are best. These can be operated manually when closing the birds in each night and then releasing them in the morning. Electronic devices are now available which can be activated by either lighting levels or timeclocks. These are popular where people's work schedule means they cannot get home until late when the neighbourhood fox is already on its evening search for food.
In the wild, fowl automatically fly to high branches to roost at night and this instinct remains strong in the domestic hen.
Perches should be removable for cleaning and have rounded edges. Wood of 5cmx5cm with rounded top edges and no sharp corners has been found to be ideal. Allow 20 cm of perch for each bird – more for larger breeds. For lighter birds these should be about 60cm from the floor but for heavier breeds these need to be lower – at the height of the bird's back.
All perches should be at the same height to avoid squabbles as hens try to get onto the highest perch. They should always be higher than the nest boxes to prevent hens sleeping in the nest box and fouling it.
These are typically about 30cm x 30cm and are often located so that egg collection can be done from outside the house. Where these are attached to the outside of the house always check to ensure that the joint is weatherproof. Nest boxes should always remain clean and dry and be dark and protected so the hen feels secure. Bedding of clean shavings should be kept clean and changed regularly.
Runs and Location.
Ideally hens should have access to grass but areas of free draining gravel or wood chip ( but not wood bark which can carry a fungus that is dangerous to chickens) can be used. Permanent runs should allow 10 sq m per large fowl. Hens are nervous of wide open spaces but remember that trees will be used for roosting and may provide a launching platform for a break to freedom!
Moveable houses or runs allow the hens to be moved to fresh ground on a regular basis. An area of rough grass is ideal for a moveable house with an attached run. Always try to site the house with its back to the prevailing wind.
All poultry runs must be predator proofed. The best known predator of poultry is of course the fox which has a well deserved reputation as a chicken-killer. The fox is not just a nocturnal hunter with many chickens being taken during daylight hours. The danger times are Spring when the foxes have young to feed and the Autumn when they are teaching the same offspring to hunt. In any event all chicken runs should be surrounded by a fox proof fence. This is typically 2 m tall of 13mm 19g chicken wire or square mesh. Some keepers also use additional wires top and bottom linked to a livestock electric fencer. To prevent the determined fox digging under the wire the bottom of the mesh can be turned out about 45 cm and buried.
Dustbathing is a natural instinct for poultry and helps to keep them free of parasites. Birds will create their own dust bath in dry conditions but ideally this should be covered with a simple roof to keep it dry in wet weather. Dry soil with some added sand and ashes works well and a box containing a mixture of these materials should be provided in moveable runs.